Here in all of its glory is round three of reactions re: Kirk’s 1953 The Conservative Mind, the book that gave a name and a unity—at least briefly—to the post-war conservatism. Even those who hold little respect for Kirk regard this book as the beginning of all things conservative.
In the standard left-ish history of post-war conservatism, Sidney Blumenthal concludes:
The Conservative Mind was crucial in establishing the causes [of the right] as a valid intellectual enterprise. [THE RISE OF HTE COUNTER-ESTABLISHMENT, 21]
And one of Leo Strauss’s students, Harry Jaffa, claims:
At the head and front of the paleoconservatives is the late Russell Kirk, whose Conservative Mind, published in the early 1950s, is widely credited as the defining work fo contemporary conservatism. [A MORAL ENTERPRISE, 255]
It should be noted that in the 1950s, Kirk saw himself as an ally and possibly even a student of Strauss’s. He did not, however, as early as the early 1960s, like Strauss’s students very much. Kirk and Strauss, however, corresponded, Kirk often visited Strauss in Chicago, and the two helped set up a conference together in 1963.
From what I’ve seen in Kirk’s letters, the criticisms of 1953-1955 never bothered him, at least not detrimentally. In fact, if anything, Kirk expressed elation at being at the center (in a Kirk, humble way) of the debate. For the most part, he respected those opposed to him, and he sought to take their ideas seriously.
He offered a response to nearly 50 of the reviews in the almost completely revised final chapter of the second edition of The Conservative Mind (1954). It’s worth noting that Kirk removed any lingering libertarianism from the second edition as well. Nock and Paterson, for example, fade into conservative oblivion in the second edition.
And, Kirk answered the critics of the “New Conservatism” (a term Kirk came to despise) in his late 1954 masterful work, A PROGRAM FOR CONSERVATIVES.
Ok, I’ve blathered on too long. Enjoy the reactions to Kirkian greatness.
Paul Dinkins, The Catholic World 178 (November 1953): 156.
“Kirk is much interested in this aspect of the subject [the role of Catholicism within conservatism], and presumably omits introduction of such thinkers as Maritain and Gilson because they are technically outside the Anglo-American context. It is always the fate of such books to receive highly partisan response, not to be judged on their intrinsic merits but to be praised or damned for the wrong reasons. The Conservative Mind is useful now, when there is a generally hospitable atmosphere for it. But it would have been even more useful fifteen years ago, when its chances of drawing favorable notice would have been very considerably slighter.”
Elizabeth G. Jackson, Foreign Service Journal 30 (December 1953): 42-43.
“As Kirk shows, these conservative political leaders knew only too well that they were counter-current and that other ideologies would sweep the world.” (Page 42)
“And surely if the Creator put any mark upon the universe it was that of infinite variety. No two things would be equal: no two stars, no two snowflakes, not two leaves upon a tree, and no two whorls upon a finger.” (Page 42)
“Mr. Kirk is to be commended for his sound scholarship and his delightful, vigorous prose style. To be sure, the reader is not always sure when Mr. Disraeli is talking or when Mr. Kirk is talking, but the reader is convinced that Mr. Kirk is thoroughly conversant with his subjects and has done a vast amount of reading in preparation for the book.” (Page 42)
Richard Hope, The Annals of the American Academy (Summer 1953): 208.
“What is conservatism? And what resources do conservatives have for ‘a democracy of elevation,’ in contrast to a ‘democracy of degradation’? Mr. Russell Kirk derives his answers to such questions from Tocqueville and from British American thinkers in the line of Burke. His vigorous and informative exposition makes an important contribution to his subject, and is at its best in his treatments of Burke, of the romantic opposition to Utilitarianism, of Disraeli, and of recent struggles of conservative ideas to ascendancy.” (Page 208)
“In view of current threats to liberty and to the amenities of civilization, we may say a hearty Amen to ‘the deliberate revival of the concept of traditional wisdom.’ But we must insist that it be wisdom.” (Page 208)
Brainard Cheney, “The Conservative Course by Celestial Navigation,” Sewanee Review (1953): 151-159.
“I would not seriously quarrel with his partiality to the Adamses; what he has to say about them is relevant and they undoubtedly contributed to conservatism. But since he opens with his surprise over our Constitution’s getting written with John Adams absent from the country at the time (and Jefferson, too) and intimates that Adams’s influence was so great that his views prevailed in his absence, I find excuse to put in a word about a favorite hero of my own. Perhaps Mr. Kirk could not have been expected to know about John Rutledge of South Carolina and his influence on the American Constitution, since Rutledge was of the doing, not of the writing order—as the voluminous Adamses were.” (Page 152)
“Mr. Kirk’s efforts meet with little real sympathy and less understanding in the five reviews I have inspected.” (Page 153)
“To reduce, in elementary fashion, Mr. Kirk’s conservatism to its ultimate aim, I will say that it does not aim at providing you a way to make a million dollars. Materially, it merely aims at ameliorating your lot, as you travel through this uncertain country—at securing you against its phenomenal delusions. The end of life, in the view of this conservatism, is not money-making—though it would secure you in your right to do so—the end of life, in the view of this conservatism, is death. And death is its climax, too; a good death, its triumph; a bad one, its tragedy. I think Mr. Kirk’s conception of conservatism is comprehensive and profound. It is when he tries to relate it to the modern world and its present predicament that he gets into trouble. It is, to be sure, an incredibly difficult task: it is like setting up a church in a house of prostitution. And he dresses conservatism in some strange vestments.” (Page 157)
“His references to private property never reveal any awareness of the subtler problems of property ownership. Property and freedom are inseparably connected, to be sure; but what is property in this modern morass of abstraction? Is, say, a piece of paper evidencing a share in an investor’s trust property? and [sic] what are one’s conservative responsibilities with respect to it? One cannot invoke one’s experience in getting this property and maintaining it—as one might look over his acres, his animals and his barns to remember times of drouth [sic] and flood, of want and plenty and enjoy the tender liberty of a movement and ease, hard-earned and contingent. How can one love a paper certificate as God’s gift or make a sacrament of its care, or feel responsibility as a tenant of the Almighty? A certificate-holder may fearfully hope that the man who got his money will not go south with it, will not make the mistake of investing it in enterprise that for any reason fails to make an adequate profit. But he can have little interest in the fortunes of the men and women engaged in any of the unknown enterprises that he collects from. He is told, not about enterprises, but the distribution of losses and gains, the statistics of profit. I consider the abstraction and division of the conditions of property ownership to be one of the most difficult problems for the conservative in this day. Indeed, our general effort to enjoy the privileges and powers of property without its responsibilities, constitutes a major social evil of our age. And the responsibilities of property are an inescapable presupposition of the freedom it can assure.” (Page 158)
“In The Conservative Mind, Mr. Kirk makes a monumental contribution toward clarifying the position of the conservatives in modern society, he presents them with a challenging cause, and he lists impressive social and political resources for them. Moreover, in doing this, he analyzes the errors of Sansculottism and her progeny with penetration and excoriates their evils with eloquence. Yet his celestial readings for the course of escape for our imperiled ship lack one significant star.” (Page 159)
“There are, there have been great symbols in our Western society. But symbols are not to be manufactured synthetically. They are created out of experience, long experience that is at once common and unique, experience that unites the individual with his fellow man, his race—and more. I repeat, there are powerful symbols in the Western Christian tradition. We have heard of them, their power. The cross that inspired crusades, the Eucharistic wafer of wheat that dispelled in men the death that is the fear of death. Created out of experience, I say—the experience required is faith.” (Page 159)
Angus Maude, “The Development of Conservatism,” Time and Tide (September 25, 1954): 1272.
“. . . this most important book.”
“Mr. Kirk has developed the now traditional thesis that modern Conservative thought begins with Burke, but he has not been content to rest on a series of well-worn quotations from that much quoted man. By placing Burke in a historical context and discussing him at unusual length he had made the subsequent development of his influence both more intelligible and more convincing.”
Hugh Maclean, “The New Conservatism,” Queen’s Quarterly 60 (Autumn 1953): 407-409.
“Kirk is the historian of conservatism, Viereck its prophet. These roles dictate differences in method: although the two agree on the broad principles of conservatism.” (Page 408)
“Kirk and Viereck, who are angry men, make too one-side a case. They would have us choose between their views and those of their opponents: no hedging.” (Page 409)
“Defenders of Order,” Times Literary Supplement (July 3, 1953).
“Mr. Russell Kirk has written two books, each of them interesting but each oft them had better been kept apart, issued in different covers. The first is a sketch of a number of conservative writers, politicians, publicists who, since the French Revolution, have defended not necessarily the ancient regime, but the principles of order and tradition, of a religious view of society, of a reverence for the decrees of Providence—in short, the principles of Burke. The second book presents, in outline rather than in detail, an investigation of the ills of modern English and American society, with a plea for more courage among the conservative elements in both countries.”
“The weaknesses arise from mixing in the same book figures of the stature of Burke with mere cranks like John Randolph of Roanoke.”
“For it is one thing to deal with political theorists of the rank of Burke and another rto extract a conservative theory from a politician like Disraeli. A few brilliant insights, that Disraeli owed as much to his being a ‘meteque’ as to any originality of mind, are not enough to entitle him to serious attention as a political theorist.”
“Even in the case of Burke we now understand the reason why he never attained real power. Burke as a political thinker is as great as Macaulay thought him, but Burke as a reformer and politician is now seen in a less edifying light. And in his treatment of nineteenth-century English history, Mr. Kirk is a little too romantic.”
“In all Mr. Kirk’s treatment of English history there is an American simple-minded romanticism that recalls Paul Elmer More and, at times, Washington Irving of Bracebridge Hall.”
Marcus Cunliffe, “Tory Champions,” History Today 3 (October 1953): 725-726.
“In some ways, Mr. Kirk’s book is very good; in others it is oddly unsatisfactory. His aim has been to trace the fate of conservative ideas, since the period of the French Revolution, in England and in the United States (and this though his study begins with an Irishman and ends with a Spaniard).” (Page 725)
“His method is to outline, in brief chapters of paraphrase seasoned with comment, the arguments of his Anglo-American team of conservatives.” (Page 725)
“This is a long list. But Mr. Kirk moves through it with confident ease, like an impeccable guide to the Great Houses. His summaries are clear, his style polished, his remarks often perceptive—sometimes wittily so.” (Page 725)
“One trouble is that the ideas expounded are too few and therefore too recurrent.” (Page 725)
“It is a long way, and a declension, from the Reflections of the master to the special pleading of Randolph of Roanoke, or the glumness of Gissing and Henry Adams.” (Page 725)
“Mr. Kirk maintains (in speaking of Disraeli’s novels) that ‘great myths are true in essence, however fanciful in detail.’ Perhaps he would quote this dictum in defence of some of his own details.”
“The main defect of Mr. Kirk’s book, indeed, lies in the uneasy juxtaposition of fact and fancy. Despite the sophisticated charm of his treatment, he does not quite manage to combine historical analysis with a discussion of our present ills. Instead, he gives us a species of myth, a tract or elegant jeremiad. Though much of what he says is important, even urgently so, the final impression is of a dreamlike unreality. Wicked isms (radicalism, liberalism, positivism, collectivism) appear, dragon-like, snorting and scorching; brave St. Georges (St. Samuel Taylor, St. Benjamin, St. Paul Elmer) ride against them, retiring with bent lances to write about the encounter. The dragons flourish; things get worse and worse; industrialism appears, and universal suffrage, and of abominations of a levelling nature. With almost a shock we remember that Mr. Kirk is an American; has then the story of his country been a series of ghastly blunders, relieved only by the muffled resistance movement of the Adams family?” (Page 726)
Arnold Kaufman, Journal of Philosophy 52 (September 1, 1955): 493-499.
“The heat of argument often causes Dr. Kirk to commit himself to patent historical absurdities or to displace argument with rhetorical bombast.” (Page 494)
“It is indeed ironical that this source and buttress of existing American traditionalism [the American Constitution] is itself the product of the creative, radical political impulse. There is no theoretical reason for mystery about this or any other tradition. Historical fact and the empirical laws and theories governing human nature, perhaps; ‘proliferating mystery,’ an appeal to ignorance.” (Page 495)
“Do not innovate; trust to Providence—this is all Dr. Kirk’s counsels. Injustice will be remedied—but not by men. Why not? Because man is evil. His lustful, avaricious, lying, irrational nature can only make things worse if he meddles with existing institutions. Original Sin becomes, in Dr. Kirk’s thought, the basis of a deep-seated antidemocratic sentiment.” (Page 495)
“In my view, the doctrine of original sin is largely irrelevant to the justification of democratic procedures. One need not contend that every human being suffers from some sort of chronic moral ailment. It is, rather, the recognition that different persons have different interests and that to let any one interest prevail would inevitably cause neglect of others, whether intentional or not, that leads to the demand for effective checks on power. Moreover, there is the statistical certainty that in every social barrel there will be a number of bad apples; effective checks on possible abuse of power must be provided. This is quite different form the radical distrust of human nature expressed by Dr. Kirk. Secondly, whatever one’s view of human nature, few would deny that men can become better or worse through active participation in the decision-making—precisely the sort of experience which enables human beings to act responsibly. In other words, effective democracy is the condition of improved democracy. This view is also in conflict with Dr. Kirk’s psychological assumptions.” (Page 496)
“The disservice Dr. Kirk does conservatism stems from the belief that conservatism should be construed as a creed guiding social policy rather than a set of flexible beliefs and, above all, a temper concerning social change.” (Page 497)
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